Padres have faith in new late-inning relievers

Padres have faith in new late-inning relievers

PEORIA, Ariz. -- In some respects, Padres catcher Nick Hundley considers himself a little spoiled for the situation he walked into in 2008 and from what has transpired since.

No, we're not necessarily talking about Hundley's career, but that upon his arrival in the Major Leagues he immediately found himself catching some very good relievers at the back end of the bullpen.

"It's amazing. I've been real fortunate since I was called up in 2008 when it was Heath [Bell] and Trevor [Hoffman] and then after that it was Mike [Adams] and Heath," Hundley said. "I don't think I can come up with three guys that would do a better job in that situation.

"I don't think it happened here in the clubhouse, but I think it was taken for granted that we've got Mike and Heath ... it's taken care of. You go into those situations and 99 out of 100 times you're going to win."

Bell served as the setup man for Hoffman in 2007 and 2008 and then it was Adams setting up for Bell in 2009, 2010 and the first half of last season before Adams was dealt to the Rangers for pitching prospects Joe Wieland and Robbie Erlin.

From 2009 until July 31, 2011, the Padres had the best bullpen ERA in the Major Leagues (2.79) -- a unit that has continually performed well in good times (90 wins in 2010) and bad (99 losses in 2008) in the first five seasons that Bud Black has been manager.

"Starting with Trevor, his stability and the guys underneath him, there was a foundation in place for a number of years in San Diego," Black said. "It's been a talented group that's always been anchored by a very good closer.

"Good pitchers, talented, good stuff and always a good plan set by [bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds] and [pitching coach] Darren [Balsley]."

Flash forward to 2012 and the Padres have two new faces at the back end of the bullpen after Bell inked a three-year, $27 million deal with the Marlins in December. The Padres, of course, played from July 31 on without Adams and subsequently struggled maintaining a lead in the later innings.

"We've got big shoes to fill," Hundley said.

Enter new closer Huston Street and projected eighth-inning specialist Andrew Cashner. Street comes to the Padres after saving 84 games over the last three seasons in Colorado, which certainly can be a tricky proposition for any pitcher, let alone one charged with holding a slim, late-inning lead at Coors Field.

Cashner was obtained from the Cubs for first-base prospect Anthony Rizzo. Cashner has an electric arm that can hit 100 mph on even the surest of radar guns. He offers the kind of arm that can miss bats, which is the type of arm the Padres want at the back end of their bullpen.

"There's no question that this is going to be a different look for us based on the new names. There was a great deal of familiarity with the guys I had," Black said. "Adding Huston and Cashner ... it's going to be a little different.

"But I feel very comfortable with him anchoring our staff."

He's not just talking about the additions of Cashner and Street, either. That gaudy 2.79 ERA that covered 2 1/2 seasons wasn't the result of just Adams and Bell pitching well. The incumbents will be counted on to pitch well, as the Padres are hoping for better returns from Luke Gregerson (who saw his strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate drop from 10.2 in 2010 to 5.5) and Ernesto Frieri (who hit a career-high nine batters, though he did have a 2.71 ERA).

There are questions in camp the Padres hope to settle regarding the bullpen, too. Who will win the long-relief job, newcomer Micah Owings or Anthony Bass? Both have Minor League options, though Owings has a guaranteed deal of $1 million. Who will win the left-handed specialist job? Joe Thatcher, who has missed each of the last two Opening Days because of a balky left shoulder, or Josh Spence?

One thing is for certain, Black knows he won't initially have the comfort level in the eighth and ninth innings that he's had in each of his first five seasons as manager. What can change that? Performance, simply put.

"There hasn't [before] been a great deal of need to make changes or worry about where certain guys are going to pitch because they've all done their job," Black said. "That's a great feeling for the whole team, the coaching staff, the players, knowing you have that reliability of guys at the end of the game.

"But I believe this can still be a very formidable bullpen. Our pitchers understand how we win. They know wherever they fit in the 'pen that those outs are very important."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.